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Last minute lawsuit could change one of Denver's ballot questions substantially

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Posted at 7:01 PM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 21:05:48-04

DENVER — A last-minute lawsuit by the City and County of Denver could significantly change the way a proposed ballot initiative would be applied if passed.

Initiative 303 would require stricter enforcement of the city’s camping ban. If approved, the initiative would do four things:

-It would require written permission from the property owner for anyone camping on private land.
-It would require the city to take action against campsites that have been reported by citizens within 72 hours
-It would allow people to sue the city if action is not taken within that 72-hour timeframe
-It would cap the number of city-sanctioned campsites to four and require things line running water and lighting at each site.

Garrett Flicker, the chair of the Denver Republican Party and one of the initiative’s creators, says the initiative was created to try to force the city to confront its growing homeless issue.

“We essentially wanted to create a road map to reign in the homelessness epidemic that’s been plaguing Denver,” Flicker said.

Opponents of the initiative worry about the message this sends to the city’s homeless.

“We keep saying, 'You can’t be here. You can’t be here. You can’t be here.' And we use all the money pushing people from place to place when we could be using it to find places for them to be,” said Benjamin Dunning from Denver Homeless Out Loud. “They just try to sweep it away through police enforcement. It’s sad that that’s what we’re looking at.”

Dunning says the city doesn’t have a camping policy that makes sense and that there are relatively few people who are making most of the noise with the camping complaints.

Denver’s city council also approved a resolution earlier this month opposing the measure. Councilwoman at large Robin Kniech says they took this step because of the potential liability the city would be exposed to with such an ordinance.

“303 allows anyone to sue the city. You don’t have to live in the city, you don’t have to prove that you are particularly impacted by a homeless camp,” Kniech said.

The seven-page lawsuit filed by Denver city attorney Kristin Bronson takes aim at the 72-hour portion of the initiative ordinance, saying the city could be violating federal court orders and people’s constitutional rights if it's enforced.

“The provision unlawfully intrudes on the City’s executive and administrative authority by requiring the City to enforce the unauthorized camping ordinance within 72 hours of receiving a complaint or face civil suit. The City supports effective enforcement of the ordinance and allocates law enforcement resources amongst several competing priorities and as such retains discretion in the timing and manner in which it responds to any citizen complaint,” a statement from the city attorney’s office read.

As the initiative’s creator, Flicker was named in the lawsuit along with four others.

He criticized the lawsuit as being blatant intimidation on the city’s part and questions why issues with the initiative were raised so close to the election when voters have already received their ballots.

“Some people have already voted on so it’s a little bit late,” he said.

Flicker also questioned why he and the other proponents were named in the lawsuit instead of Denver’s Clerk and Recorder, who placed the question on the November ballot.

The way Kniech sees it, if the city’s lawsuit is unsuccessful and Initiative 303 passes, Denver could face multiple lawsuits.

On the one hand, the city could be sued for not enforcing the 72-hour deadline. On the other hand, though, she worried the city could also be sued for enforcing the three-day rule.

“Either way, 303 sets the city up for massive taxpayer liability,” Kniech.

Flicker disagrees and believes there are straightforward measures the city can take to comply with the ordinance if it passes.

“It says nothing about it’s going to be cleared in 72 hours,” Flicker said. “Taking action that could just mean putting up the notice to vacate the encampment.”

He believes the lawsuit should be dismissed and is still asking people to vote "yes."

The lawsuit was filed in the Denver District Court; it would not get rid of the entire ballot question, just the 72-hour enforcement.

Bronson requested a declaratory judgment that one section of the question would be null and void. She requested an expedited hearing so that the case could be taken up before the November 2 election.